Essays - Fall, 2012
by Randy Roche, SJ
Below is a title and brief description of each essay. To read the essay, click on the title.
Birthdays - Without ours, we wouldn’t be. Without Jesus’, where would we be?
Olives and Grapes - We do not learn compassion from books or psychology courses.
Earn a Gift? - We need appropriate ways to give love for us to be human.
Small - “Small” refers, at least implicitly, to comparison with something larger or of more importance.
After Thanksgiving - Who of us does not like receiving and giving thanks when there is a cause?
Power Down, Power Up - We are not machines, and we are not made for anything like a state of perpetual motion.
Words - We are, in a very real way, what we speak.
Listening - Listening is a spiritual activity as much as is speaking.
Once a Day - At any time we choose, we can begin building a habit that will further enhance our lives.
“Ouch” - Most of our physical bumps and cuts are the results of accidents.
Inboard – Outboard - What kind of internal power and steering arrangements are we using at this point in our lives?
Independence - Life in any kind of community is fully human when we can live in dependence upon one another.
Giving Thanks - In giving thanks, we make ourselves a bit transparent .
Birthdays have a variety of meanings and attached feelings that arise from reasons other than the number of years being commemorated. We can think of birthdays as occasions where the most important feature is to celebrate that a person we care about is here among us. Our concern is for the people themselves, not primarily the amount of time that they have been in this world. The number of years since someone was born is a numerical notation that identifies one aspect of a person’s life, but definitely not the most important.
We want to learn the birthdays of people we know not so we can compare their number of years with ours, as if that could represent the main bond between us, but to learn something personal about them that will help us relate as a fellow human. Knowing even the date of birth of someone provides us with a possible point of interaction, as when we compare one another’s place within the yearly calendar of seasons and events. Each birthday can be related to other dates that are familiar to us, such as 9/11, July 4 or any date of common interest, thereby affording opportunities for imaginative and creative conversations.
The birthday of Jesus is also an occasion for conversations and celebrations, but especially for deepening the bonds of friendship with God. Like us, he was born. Though Jesus does not have a birth certificate for a particular year, month, and day, we are glad that he was born whenever he was. If we wonder at times whether or not we really have a relationship with Jesus, we might reflect on our habitual positive response to his birth. We can see little children wanting to pick up the baby in a crèche display, as they readily identify with a little one. Only later will they, as we, wonder at how God who creates all that exists manages to enter our world the same way as we all do, by being born. The more we come to appreciate the mystery of this God-human connection, the more we can resonate with the person whose birthday we celebrate.
Only people have birthdays, but here is the eternal God, as human, with a day of birth. We might ask, as did Mary when she was invited to be the mother through whom this birth would take place, “How can this be?” Even if we do not understand how this can be, we might recognize how greatly we are affirmed in our humanity by the historical event of God, in Christ, having a birthday.
The birthday of Jesus is an occasion for celebration: sometimes in ritual gatherings, as at a Christ-Mass (from which we receive the word Christmas), or at parties of various kinds where Jesus, even if his name is perhaps rarely mentioned, is the bond and the cause for our gathering. If we live as those who are glad at Jesus being born, then we are in a friendship with God that does not end even with our death. We are due, in this unique friendship, to have another kind of birthday: into the life of the “Son of Man” who was born, died, and is risen.
Birthdays: without ours, we wouldn’t be. Without Jesus’, where would we be?
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Olives and Grapes
Though table grapes are popular eating, and olives are included in many recipes, grapes are known more for their crushed form, wine, and olives for their oil. From ancient times to the present, olive oil and wine have been staples in most cultures and countries of the world. Olives and grapes are useful as they are, but become more pleasing to a far larger number of people only after they have been pressed into oil and wine.
We are people, not fruit grown on trees or vines, but many very good aspects of our personalities are directly related to the challenges we confront. Under the press of circumstances over which we often have little control, we manage, gracefully but often painfully, to grow and mature into our unique kinds of oil and wine for others. At times we might knowingly place ourselves in an oil or wine press, believing that we will come out better in the end for our having endured the stressful squeezing process of entering new relationships or changed conditions. At other times we are pushed and pulled by people and situations at work or at home that catch us completely by surprise, but we follow our inspirations rather than spending all our energy on fighting against the perceived injustices confronting us. We grow through our suffering rather than being diminished.
Those who have come through the other side of frustrations, disappointments and unfairness are also the people who are most able to help others deal with their hurts. We do not learn compassion from books or psychology courses, but through reflection upon our experiences, especially those where our hearts are painfully squeezed by conflicting desires and expectations. Physical suffering is another kind of wine press or oil press that we do not welcome, but which provides opportunities for us to develop qualities of patience, understanding, acceptance of realities outside our control and also, very often, reception of help from others. When we are struggling with physical, emotional, or spiritual suffering, we are only aware of our present immersion in the challenges confronting us. Afterwards, we might find cause for gratitude, not for the suffering, but for the type of encounters that make us capable of understanding and appreciating the perspectives of the people we want to assist.
When wine is allowed to sit too long after being opened, it turns sour; when olive oil is exposed overmuch to air, it becomes rancid. But the oil and wine of our lives cannot be spoiled because of outside influences; neither do we need to store it up for future use. Unlike the products of olives and grapes which usually come to us in relatively small containers, the more we share of what we have, the larger the quantity, and also the higher the quality, of the oil and wine that we are able to bring to the table of life.
Olives and grapes: food for life, food for thought.
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Earn a Gift?
When we consider how some of our wants and needs in life are met, “earn” emphasizes the efforts we expend while “gift” more strongly represents the giftedness of what we receive. We think it far more reasonable to earn wages as a means of supporting ourselves and loved ones than if we wait to win a lottery. But we usually think of friendship as a gift rather than something we earn, recognizing that our own efforts cannot create bonds of closeness between persons.
Most of us understand that we cannot earn love, but we might also know that a good reputation does not come entirely as a gift; our consistent or inconsistent behavior arises from the many and varied choices we make. Our spiritual and physical environment provides us with challenges and opportunities for making decisions that are in keeping with the purpose of our existence – or not. If we earn self-respect through our choices, and some level of esteem from those who observe our words, deeds and attitudes, we become gifts – gifts that others do not earn, but which are theirs to accept.
We all need love, even to survive, and certainly to thrive. Since we cannot earn love, we can yet choose many ways of making ourselves available to receive the gift that makes life worth living. When we receive with gratitude gifts of care, concern, assistance and respect we are likely to receive further such gifts. But if we manifest an attitude of entitlement, we make it more difficult for people to take an interest in our welfare and we become less likely to even recognize the many forms of love that are spontaneously given to us.
Paradoxically, the fact that love cannot be earned is the characteristic that almost ensures that love will be given. The endearing qualities of babies and children are not their loud wails, but their very need to receive from us the kind of care that we can give. We need appropriate ways to give love for us to be human. We find this truth within us through experiences both joyful and sad. If we reflect a bit, we can see that one source of interior discomfort is not caused by the absence of being loved (honest reflection will reveal that we are loved) but that we are not acting sufficiently according to our desires and capacities to love. We have a spiritual movement inside us that urges us to get on with the reason we exist: to bring love into the world, not to gather it to ourselves (if we could).
We do not earn anyone’s love, especially God’s. Rather, our existential poverty attracts the love which we cannot earn or deserve. If or when we try to earn God’s love we are far more liable to be frustrated than fulfilled. In order to receive love as the gift that it is, we need to be open to all the possible ways that love can come to us, not imposing limits of narrow expectations or trying to determine for ourselves in what ways we can be contented. If we make implicit demands, equivalently trying to direct love toward us in a disguised from of control, we remove the essential freedom required for love to be received. Even though God loves us always and unequivocally, every attempt to control the gift blinds us to the gift that creates and entirely enfolds us.
Rather than earn the gift of love or any gift, we need only to receive it, with gratitude.
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Christmas cards we receive in the mail come in different sizes. While the larger cards can present bigger images, we will likely remember one card more readily than another because of the message conveyed rather than by reason of whether one card is larger or smaller than another.
In a different context, we might think that size does matter when we think, for example, of donations to charitable causes, where larger sums are of more value than smaller amounts. A least in their effects it would seem to be true. But it is possible to give a large gift to the poor with little concern for the recipients, or a small gift with more care. Different set of values are involved, just as larger Christmas cards as compared to smaller ones are valued differently from the kinds of messages – personal or impersonal - that might be contained in either small or large cards.
Some people think of the period from Thanksgiving through Christmas as burdensome when they consider all the extra demands on their time, and perhaps on their finances. Another perspective, quite as real, but more positive, focuses on one small event, one session of writing notes or one phone call at a time rather than the possibly overwhelming thought of the sum of all of them together. Today, and every day, even an extremely busy day, takes place one moment at a time. If we pause before beginning the day’s activities, we can choose an attitude or a perspective for doing each small act of listening or doing, as a gift that we give gladly, rather than a series of obligations to be shouldered until the day is finally done.
Many of the material things in life that we esteem highly are small, such as a wedding band, a hand-held electronic device or a photo of someone we love. Even more, our experiences of small favors given or received, little signs of sincere respect and daily inspirations are often of great worth to us. The small things that we do and can do are of great value, whereas we accomplish little in reality if we focus primarily on either the particulars of what we might like to do or the sum of all that we wish to accomplish.
“Small” refers, at least implicitly, to comparison with something larger or of more importance. If we reflect on the immensity of the created universe, we are very, very small. But our God-given value as humans is not measured in terms of size, but rather by how we exercise our capacity to love. We are all capable of giving many small, but more valuable gifts than planets, stars and galaxies, through thoughtful words or gestures, or choosing kind thoughts in place of judgmental or negative ones. We did not create this system of values whereby the proverbial gift of a “cup of water to one of these least ones” counts for more than any sum of money or any physical part of creation. Only God, who is love, could (and did) so arrange our place within creation.
“Small is beautiful” when it comes from the heart.
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When we have given thanks to someone for a gift, a favor or a kind word, are we really done? The moment passes and we move on, but the effects of giving thanks remain with us, and quite probably with whomever we thank. Rather than being through, we are in the midst of becoming more habitually grateful persons. Giving thanks is a free act and a deeply human response to a very important aspect of life: caring for one another, and participating in God’s care for us.
We become persons of gratitude, one “thank you” at a time. No matter how we convey our thanks, whether by words or gestures, a look or a touch, the deed is as good for us as it is for the recipients. Though we might have been taught that it is only “good manners” to give thanks to people for anything that they might do on our behalf, we are sincere when we express thanks even at those times when we do not feel particularly grateful. No matter what our state of feelings might be, when we give thanks we are taking part in building a community of respect and love.
Thanksgiving Day, as marked on our calendars, presents us with a reminder of the importance of giving thanks, especially in community settings of family, friends and associates. But giving thanks to one another and to God is best done every day of the year. The advantage of having a day singled out for Thanksgiving is that we all are reminded at the same time, encouraging communal participation by all those who are aware of the annual holiday celebration. Though we do not need a calendar as a prompt for giving thanks on a daily basis, we can help ourselves develop a strong habit of thankfulness by setting a time, and perhaps a usual place, when we pause and consider some of the most recent causes for gratitude that come to mind.
Who of us does not like receiving and giving thanks when there is a cause? If we reflect on every-day realities, such as creation that surrounds us and some of the conscious choices we have made, there are many, many possibilities for thankfulness. All kinds of favors abound in ordinary life: people we know, the benefits of human civilization, natural and man-made objects that are useful to us, and many other realities that we can acknowledge as gifts and benefits.
Giving thanks to God and to people can be a joyful exercise that fulfills a human need in us and a concomitant power for good that can be satisfied with relative ease. What does it cost to give thanks? Not a bit; and we all benefit from doing so.
We can even change some difficult or conflicted situations by consciously and creatively seeking in them some honest causes for giving thanks. We can at least try to transform our own suffering from merely enduring pain to that of realistic acceptance of what we cannot immediately heal or resolve. Seeking to place our troubled circumstances within a larger framework that includes our purpose in life permits an interior state of peace and even joy. Prayer certainly helps, for nothing can of itself separate us from love, the deepest source of gratitude.
After Thanksgiving, we can keep on giving thanks.
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Power Down, Power Up
We cannot well carry on our daily activities by trying to remain at a peak energy level all day every day. Besides resting at night, we might have also learned by now to decrease the force of our efforts at times so that we can afterwards give our full and undistracted attention to the rest of the day’s activities. We turn down our power output at one or more intervals during the day not primarily to get away from our work, but for the sake of increased efficiency. That is, when we deliberately power down for a few minutes, we can power up at full capacity rather than continuing to work at what we might think is full power, while we are very likely growing tired, slowing down gradually, working with diminishing quality and even making some poor decisions.
A habit of powering down and powering up, in addition to increasing our efficiency, also provides privileged space in our day for the gentle movements of inspiration and creativity which mark the action of the Spirit. During long periods of continuous activity, we might lose contact with the simple truth that we are not totally in control of what we are doing or of the effects of our efforts upon others. Deliberately powering down not only affords a pause from activity both physically and emotionally, but also provides an occasion for becoming more receptive to gratitude and other spontaneous movements that we do not initiate. When we power up again, we do so with renewed purpose. And if, while taking a brief pause from activity we recognize some causes for gratitude, we can expect to find more reasons for thankfulness throughout the rest of our day – an attitude that enhances all that we do.
Our purpose in life has more to do with the qualities we bring to both activity and inactivity, and not the mere accomplishment of tasks, however good they might be. In God’s eyes, and in honest reflection upon our lives and the lives of others, the person who is most active does not win the prize. Our value derives from how much each of us chooses to love in either of the states – active or inactive - and everything in between.
We are not machines, and we are not made for anything like a state of perpetual motion. Not only do we need rest, but we also need to be in touch with the source of actual power for making a difference in the world. We cannot discover, enhance or revivify our motivation and our deepest desires without some opportunities for reflection. Of course God inspires us while we are in the midst of action. But to be a contemplative at the same time as when we are in action is a gift and grace that requires reflection. Without taking appropriate pauses, we become merely active, and the quality of our actions drops below the level of our capabilities.
In order to power up we need to occasionally power down.
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One of my favorite lines in Scripture is, “Say only the good things people need to hear . . .” (Eph. 4.39) When we base our choice of words on others’ needs, and on helping them, even criticism and confrontation are possible, but we will have nothing derogatory or injurious to say. Whether our speaking vocabulary is large or small, we have access to enough words so that we do not have to use disparaging expressions in order to convey our intentions. Whatever we say, and how we say it, not only contains the meaning of the words, but also reveals our attitudes. We are as responsible for being helpful rather than judgmental when we speak, as we are for being truthful rather than trying to mislead our listeners.
We have had experiences of receiving kind and helpful comments, even some that were painful to hear, so we know well how radically different it is when we are subjected to words that we did not need to hear, words that were not helpful. We are also quite familiar with the ways in which words, gestures and tone of voice can communicate either positive or negative meanings.
The words we use, both in speaking with others and within ourselves, have effects far beyond their dictionary definitions. Whether we make use of the most scholarly expressions or the simplest possible words, our minds and hearts are involved – our very persons. We are, in a very real way, what we speak. We can be habitually positive or negative even in our own inner comments about what we observe or do.
Some of us almost unconsciously, and therefore with significant effects that are often not recognized, engage in a running commentary on how everyone and everything around us is flawed. The consequence is unhappiness, primarily from the misuse of inner words, and not because of challenges and suffering, for these also occur in the lives of those who are generally happy. Others of us have developed habits, not of ignoring or denying all problems and failures, but of properly naming our inner realities. Those who can say to themselves that they are disappointed by their mistakes can at the same time be confident and optimistic, ready to supply other truthful words that accurately name their successes and also the gifts that they receive.
How do we find the truthful and helpful words that we need to hear inside ourselves, which will then quite naturally enable us to speak the words that will be of benefit to others? When we attend to the consonance or dissonance of inner words, how they enliven and enlighten or depress and darken our spirits, we will have the necessary information about the relative value and truth of those words in our present understanding of them.
Further, we can seek confirmation of whatever tentative judgments we make about those words by bringing them to prayer in a manner similar to how we ask direct questions of a trusted friend. For example, if one of us asked whether it really was inappropriate to call ourselves by a derogatory name after making a mistake, we would not expect to have the clouds open and a voice from somewhere tell us “no!” But, if we ask the question, the Spirit of truth will assist our basic sense of honesty in recognizing that applying negative words to ourselves serves no good purpose. We are in little danger of going to the opposite extreme of using words of high praise for ourselves in our little accomplishments, for the same Spirit knows well our smallness, and helps us find the right words that fit each occasion.
We have a responsibility to ourselves and to others to “say only the good things” we need to hear.
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When we listen to someone speak, we take into ourselves much more than the meaning of the words that are spoken. We listen with various levels of interest, attentiveness or concern depending upon our present relationship with the speaker. We attend with more openness to someone we trust than to another person who wishes to convince us that he or she is “right.” And we open our hearts to receive what a dear friend relates, while we listen more cautiously to anyone whose values are clearly opposed to ours.
In all the different modes of listening that we exercise, we are anything but mere recipients of word-meaning. Our listening is not passive, even when we are in company with someone we have known for a long time, and converse about matters of little importance. Listening is as lively a human endeavor as is speaking or writing.
Listening is also a spiritual activity as much as is speaking, and in many situations listening is more beneficial for our minds and hearts than anything we could put into words. When we listen, we can more readily monitor both our thoughts and our feelings, allowing for a healthy synthesis in making judgments about what to keep and what to dismiss of the content coming to us. Even when we are speaking, we are capable of a special kind of listening: to ourselves. We are able to perceive whether or not our words are close to our truth, and we know when we are following our inspirations or giving in to negative pressures of fear or expectations.
When we pray, and we listen, we do not usually hear words. Rather, we might become conscious of word-thoughts within us that are meaningful. At other times very little comes to mind, but we find that we are peaceful and contented. Even if we pray with memorized or written words, whether of a particular prayer or some lines from Scripture, we can still listen. Sometimes we will be able to savor the meaning of what we are saying or of what we intend by our use of words in communicating with God. At other times we might notice inner contentment while we say the words, and come to acknowledge more fully our present state of mind and spirit.
When we listen in prayer, not concentrating all our attention and efforts on what we are saying to God, we are more likely to become aware of how we feel about what we are thinking, and also recognize that some of the longings and desires of our hearts are as important in relating with God as are any of the words we might use. With an attitude of listening, we are liable to notice how some thoughts that come to mind resonate deeply within us, and that we can pause and savor the experience. We notice too, that some thoughts pass quietly though our minds, and do not attract us. Other thoughts cause disturbance and move us away from our communication with God, and those we need to recognize as not helpful, and either leave them aside if we are able, or bring them consciously to prayer by telling God that these negative thoughts are getting in our way.
Listening is a powerful channel for giving and receiving love.
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Once a Day
Some of us take at least one medication every day. Some have habits of coffee every morning, or exercise or quiet time; some have one radio or TV program that is as regular for them as getting a night’s sleep. Whether we take a vitamin, drink a beverage, or engage in an activity once each day, we initiated at some time in the past what has by now become a habit. We might not have consciously decided to create some of our consistent patterns of behavior when we began them, but we all have personal customs, routines and practices that we have found worth continuing.
Reflecting on some of our once-a-day routines can be revealing. Not only might we admire and be grateful for some of the beneficial habits which we may have been taking for granted, but we might also recognize that we have a need that is not yet being met. We continue to grow as humans as a result of our interactions with other people and the effects upon us of the ups and downs of our life experiences. We might become aware, especially if we take a little quiet time to look within, that we “want something more” than what comes to us though our present every-day customs.
If we do not have a once a day practice of noting some of the causes for gratitude in our experiences, we might be limiting our healthy spiritual growth as much as failing to drink enough water negatively affects our physical health. At any time we choose, we can begin building a habit that will further enhance our lives. And we can start “small,” as people do when they decide that they need at least a little physical exercise. If walking a few blocks is better than not walking at all, taking a few minutes a day to enjoy, savor, or be thankful for a few of the ordinary but real gifts, graces, accomplishments, pleasant encounters, inspired thoughts and actions that have been part of our lived experience is certainly better than letting a day go by without noting a single thing that has gone well.
Gratitude is not only related to interactions with persons, including God, but also to all the answers that we learn to some of the important questions in life; answers to questions about meaning and purpose, about life and even about death that are occasioned by our observations and experiences. When we accept a new responsibility, for example, and find that we rise to the challenge, and when we reflect, and so come to recognize that what we have chosen to say and do were worth our efforts, we are at the same time answering those important questions – a cause for gratitude.
Once a day, we can take some time to notice at least one thing we did or said that our inner values-monitor identifies as bringing even a little light, life, or love into the world, and that evokes thankfulness. Without putting a burden on our minds or imaginations, we can surely find something in our day that, upon reflection, manifests in some way, that we were adding to, not subtracting from, human society. Such a practice provides incremental answers to life’s important questions, and is cause for thankfulness.
Once a day gratitude: an easy and significant spiritual exercise.
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We know what it is like to have received a bruising bump on our heads or a small bleeding cut to one of our fingers. We might not have said “ouch,” but whether we gave voice to it or not, we suffered a slight injury, and it hurt. Likewise, at any time, a thought can come to us that is equivalently a bump or a cut, and which hurts, though in a somewhat different way than with physical pain. However, the analogy with bumps and cuts can be useful for proper and swift healing.
For a bruise, we might quickly apply a cold pack to reduce swelling, and for a cut that bleeds, cleaning and an appropriately sized bandage. For interior hurts, such as internal thoughts that are harsh, negative or disparaging, we might ignore the pain and take no healing measures. After all, no one will see the “bruise,” and no blood is spilled, since it is all inside us. But, interior hurts that are not treated relatively close to the time of the injury are quite liable to equivalently swell or become infected, and cause us further pain and inconvenience.
Most of our physical bumps and cuts are the results of accidents. We might say that “we did it to ourselves,” but of course we did not set out to hurt ourselves, and assigning blame is a distraction to the necessity of getting on with the healing process. Some of the hurtful, angry, hateful thoughts and words that appear in our minds are also accidents, in that we do not initiate them. But because they are within us, we could think that we are somehow the cause, and that something is wrong with us. Worse, we might even believe that healing is therefore not possible. Following the analogy with physical hurts, our responsibility is to turn our attention to appropriately treating the interior injuries, and not to deny their existence or to ignore their effects upon us.
The cold-packs, cleaning and bandaging of interior injuries is accomplished first by deciding to treat them sooner rather than later. We might have to wait until later in the day, even to the evening, but delaying more than that will likely lead to further negative consequences. While we can reason with ourselves about the relative unimportance of being harried or disturbed by negative thoughts, healing depends upon identifying what has taken place and what we will do about it. Telling someone that a cut on his or her finger is “nothing” does not make it disappear, while helping apply a bandage does indeed begin the healing process physically and emotionally. We do not want to make more of our interior hurts than they merit, but we do well to consider the kind and quality of whatever has caused pain, and decide whether or if we need to do something more than accepting that the thoughts were injurious.
By reflecting on our experiences with thoughts that tend towards discouragement, unreasoned fear or unfocused anger, we might recognize them for what they are: negative and counter-productive. This is our chance, in naming them as inimical to our well-being, when we can, with reason and grace on our side, stop them, think opposite them, and pray for healing.
“Ouch” as word or a feeling is a helpful symptom letting us know that we are in need of healing rather than passive acceptance.
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Inboard – Outboard
Many small pleasure craft have outboard engines that are attached to the back of the boat, providing both power and steering. Many larger boats, especially yachts and speedboats, have stationery engines and propeller shafts built into them, with steering provided by a tiller. Some boats have the engine inside, but the power is delivered through gears to an outboard steerable propeller.
What kind of internal power and steering arrangements are we using at this point in our lives? Outboard spirituality might be described as having the majority of our motivational sources external to us, and the practice of taking our hurts and needs to someone outside us. Inboard spirituality might be marked by keeping the engine as a permanent feature within ourselves, so that most of our personal concerns are dealt with onboard, and the power is delivered directly through one’s self to the world about us, although we have an external tiller for steering. Inboard – outboard spirituality keeps the engine wholly within, where maintenance and fuel are applied, but the power and steering are both external.
Boats are designed and built for specific purposes that do not usually change, so the selection of any of the three power-and-steering arrangements is matched to both purpose and design. We are created capable of change, and of consciously choosing how we will make our way in life. At one time, we might put our primary reliance on others for helping to make decisions; in another period of our lives we might keep the determination of our concerns almost completely to ourselves. We also might choose to steer by direct application of power, or in other circumstances, to trust our links with a steering unit outside us.
Not only do we, as individuals, differ from one another as much as do the varieties of boats, but we ourselves are, while remaining the same persons, capable of changing our manner of decision-making as radically as if a boat with an outboard motor were to become a speedboat with an inboard engine. Perhaps we have changed so gradually, and at this time in our lives now take our manner of dealing with life’s gifts and challenges so much for granted, that only upon reflection do we recognize that, for example, at one time we used to constantly ask others for their opinions on almost every matter before we would tentatively make a decision. And now, we might only consult with a very trusted person in rare situations when we are faced with a difficult choice.
Some of us learn earlier, and some later in life that we navigate best through decision-making when the steering is in consultation with God: when we “check our inspirations” prior to changing directions or prior to applying power for more speed or less, or dropping the anchor. Whether we exercise our spirituality in the manner of outboard, inboard, or a combination of both, reflection on our experience will likely reveal cause for much gratitude if we recognize that God has always been with us in our boat.
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We have many words in spoken English that take the prefix “in,” where the meaning is “not.” Independence means not dependent - a most valued concept for most Americans. For purposes of reflection, the spoken word can be turned around to another positive meaning where “in” means in. For example, we could judge that in some situations we are better off when we are in dependence upon others. The pronunciation is the same but the meaning is not at all the same, and allows for helpful considerations.
We are familiar with another word, interdependence, which seems easier to think about than dependence, since our culture values freedom and individual rights to an extreme. All the goods of civilization, everywhere in the world, are only possible through various forms of interdependence. When we are able to trust one another, we can depend upon people and gain immeasurable benefits that are not attainable where dictatorial coercion exists. Interdependence is marked by the exercise of different gifts by different individuals for the sake of the common good. Life in any kind of community is fully human when we can live in dependence upon one another.
We know from experience that not all people are worthy of our trust; some persons are more reliable than others, and, sadly, there are those who would take advantage of us even to our harm if they were able to gain something for themselves at our expense. Interdependence, in general, is necessary for any small group or great nation, but is not automatic, and not to be taken for granted as everyone’s ideal or practice. We choose whom we will trust, and to what extent, even in societies where some are identified as authorities, leaders and teachers. In all our relationships, including with family and friends as well as in the great variety of social, business, civic and religious organizations that merit our attention, we make careful decisions about the level of trust we will place in each and every person. We want to receive the benefits of depending upon others, but we also want to protect ourselves from being hurt or harmed.
As we grow from childhood to adults, especially in western cultures, we describe maturity as a move from total dependence to relatively complete independence. But, with a bit of honest reflection, we recognize that we are actually interdependent. And, if we reflect further, we will find that at the deepest level of our lives we might be of such maturity as to consciously and freely live in dependence upon God.
To become fully human, we need to become independent, at least to a large extent, from those who give us birth. But in relation to our Creator, we do not outgrow, or need to step beyond (if it were possible) reliance upon a love that absolutely and always has our welfare as “top priority.” When infants are well cared for all their needs are met, as they can do nothing on their own. But each individual develops only by making independent choices and dealing with their consequences. With God, the fullest expression of our independent freedom to choose is that of responding to ever-present love: in persons, in creation, and to God’s presence within and outside us.
Just as we can make wise independent choices about how we will live with appropriate interdependence in our human relationships, we are free to make decisions, with ongoing reflection upon our experiences, for living in dependence upon God.
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We can give a card or note to someone, and we might present a gift of some kind, but if we pause to consider the meaning of “giving thanks,” we might recognize that the experience is almost always spiritual. Perhaps only through reflection do we see that there is much more to giving thanks than whatever we do by way of words, gifts, and gestures.
When we give material gifts to others as a means of expressing our appreciation, we hand over those things from our possession to theirs; we once had them, and now they belong to the recipients to use as they choose. But when we give thanks from within, we do not transfer something we had to another person who will thence possess it, but we give of ourselves in dignified relationship. We give nothing away. Rather, we reveal our intention and attitude of regard towards others, and this we do from our hearts, not our material resources.
In giving thanks, we make ourselves a bit transparent by letting others know something about us, about our values, especially the importance we place on gratitude. By giving thanks, we also receive at least as much as we give through the satisfying bonds that we establish in communicating gratitude. Also, most of us experience joy in the mutual recognition of good deeds and intentions, kindnesses and all else that elicits gratefulness and praise.
We reveal too, when we give thanks, whatever implicit or explicit understanding we have of who God is, as source of all that is good. In a manner both honest and spontaneous, we have found and acknowledged particular manifestations of God in the thoughts and actions of others. Giving thanks, when it involves our minds and our hearts, is of much more significance than mere words and symbols can suggest.
Many of us take pleasure in giving thanks to people we know, understanding that we might, in some small way, contribute to their happiness, to their sense of self-worth and to their recognition that they “count,” at least in our eyes. But who could we meet, in a shop or store, or any place where people interact in any way, who would not appreciate an expression of gratitude when it is sincere? We possess the power within us to support positive attitudes, right-thinking, good deeds and every kind of helpful or beneficial behavior in people around us. And in so doing, we ourselves are always beneficiaries, becoming ever more the kind of person we see and acknowledge in others.
We do not provide encouragement and support when we give thanks to God. But is our giving thanks appreciated? If we think of our own responses to honest expressions of gratitude from others, our first thoughts are not about how good we are, but about the genuine care that someone exhibits towards us, however momentary and small a particular incident might be. We appreciate being appreciated. God is Love, and when we give thanks to God, we enter more deeply and more fully into Love, which is exactly what God wants for us.
Giving thanks is one of the primary ways we demonstrate that we are in the image and likeness of God.
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Last Updated: 01/04/13